8 Mile (2002)
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In the music world whatever Eminem touches turns to gold. Now he's crossed over into the movie world with pretty much the same results. Why has 8 Mile been such a success? First, it helps that this movie isn't some kind of dumb vanity project (see Mariah Carey's Glitter or Vanilla Ice's Cool as Ice). Secondly, it's bursting stellar talent--including director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential).
While 8 Mile isn't completely autobiographical, it is very much a glimpse into Eminem's life growing up in Detroit. Before Marshall Mathers was a superstar, he was a struggling artist who desperately wanted to be heard. Of course being white in a predominately black neighborhood presented a world of challenges.
In 8 Mile Eminem plays Jimmy Smith (aka B-Rabbit), a talented musician trying to break free of his tough surroundings. His mother (played by Kim Basinger) is a dysfunctional woman who's happiness seems determined by whether or not she wins at bingo, while most of his friends seem to be going nowhere. All this on top of growing up fatherless in a hard, poverty stricken environment Smith has the skills to take his music to the top, but he can't quite shake the fear that comes with performing in nightly rap competitions at a local club.
The heart of 8 Mile brought to mind two 70's cinema treasures. With it's depiction of young friends cruising around getting into trouble, and it's main character hoping to achieve success with extraordinary talent, I was reminded of Saturday Night Fever. And with it's underdog tale of a young kid growing up in the sticks, getting that all important shot at the big time, I was instantly reminded of Rocky. There's even a moment in 8 Mile when our hero is about to face off against his adversary, and while the two are merely about to rap, the scene is staged in a way that suggest we're about to watch Sly and Mr. T bloody each other up in the ring.
So how is Eminem in his big screen debut? He's terrific, but then he isn't asked to do Shakespeare here. Mathers is perfectly used in 8 Mile, and not surprisingly, he's most impressive in the dynamic rap sequences. This is not the Eminem that we're used to seeing in interviews. This is a stripped down version. The rap superstar manages to humanize B-Rabbit, and this makes the experience all the more real. You'd never think that at some point in his life, Slim Shady was so afraid before hitting the stage, that he actually threw up. But then if you asked Eminem about this, he'd probably reply by saying that it never did happen. It's just a movie thing. Basinger is at her most unglamorous, and while she is making a big effort, she overplays this underwritten role. Mekhi Phifer is very likable as B-Rabbit's best buddy and Brittany Murphy excels as the new girl in Jimmy's life, a sort of sleazy young woman who has aspirations of her own.
Director Curtis Hanson has had an interesting career. Early on, he made a name for himself directing thriller fluff like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. No one was more surprised than me when he delivered the brilliant L.A. Confidential. He followed that up with the impressive Wonder Boys. In all honesty, there is nothing distinctively Curtis Hanson in 8 Mile. Hanson has the good sense to know that this is the Eminem Show (if you'll pardon the pun) and he lets the charisma of his star shine through. This isn't to say Hanson does nothing. He really captures the gritty feel of Detroit, and the film is well put together, but there's no flash here. 8 Mile is very subtle in terms of it's visual execution. Maybe a little too subtle. I suppose that's because Eminem is such an intriguing performer that Hanson didn't want to overshadow him.
Scott Silver's screenplay has it's moments, but it does take a little too long to get going, and the scenes in which Smith and his buddies cruise around talking about life, don't really work. These guys don't have anything particularly interesting to say to each other, but then I guess that's part of the point. They're not really going anywhere in their lives. Still, it made for boring screen time. What I do admire about the screenplay, is how each character effects Jimmy's life in some way. These characters all push or motivate B-Rabbit, be it in a negative or positive way. Silver also has fun playing with Eminem's media perpetuated rep as bad boy. Jimmy even has a friend at work who happens to be homosexual.
The movie really explodes when Eminem is performing, and I suspect much of this stuff was improvised by the lyrical genius himself. The climax of 8 Mile really makes you want to stand up and cheer, and you can't ask for much more than that.
Eminem has proven that he is the real deal. He is, perhaps, the most relevant artist since Kurt Cobain, in that he really seems to be connecting with a generation. As a film star, he has potential, and I want to see more of his story. 8 Mile, while engrossing, only scratches the surface of this superstar's life. I hope we get to see more of his story.
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